Provoking thought

Man on the Moon

Man on the Moon
DALL-E rendering of an inspired janitor looking at the moon

In 1962, president John F. Kennedy visited NASA for the first time. As he toured around, he met a janitor carrying a broom in the hallway.

“What are you doing here, son?” the president asked.

The janitor stood still, broom in hand, and dreamily glanced up towards the sky.

“I’m helping putting a man on the moon,” the janitor replied.

Queue inspirational music.

I’ll bet you that this story is Bull Shit (Jack’s second cousin).

Nevertheless it’s an anecdote that’s often used as an aspirational example of ultimate business goal alignment. If even the janitor at NASA understands how he’s contributing to a mission as mundane as having some dude in a giant puffy suit plant a flag on a giant piece of rock, imagine achieving this in a much more inspiring context, like our company mission. You remember it right?

Recently I’m toying with the idea of management fiction (man-fi, or is that sexist?) as a literature genre. Analogous to science fiction — management fiction is not real, but close enough for it to be interesting, and to make you think a little bit. What if, you know?

Let’s do another one.

Jack steps into an elevator at 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino.

The elevator is not empty. There’s somebody in there already, wearing circular glasses and a black turtleneck. He turns towards Jack.

Just before the elevator doors close, we can hear him ask “What are you doing here, son?”

As the elevator arrives at its destination floor, Jack is an Apple employee no more.

As Jack tries to step out, sad-faced, his path is somewhat blocked by Bull, his second cousin, trying to get in.

Another questionable story. Steve Jobs doesn’t strike me like the type of person who would use the word “son” in a question, does he? Leaving aside the improbability of the Shit cousins both having jobs at Apple at any point in time.

Still, it’s powerful as a representation as the ruthlessly high expectations of Steve Jobs, though. Shouldn’t everybody be able to answer this question reasonably? What if?

Man-fi. I’m going to make it a thing.

“Zef, I’m really hoping that somehow we would be able to get people to always take the customer perspective; make sure that we relate everything we do to the The Mission. I bet we’d make much better products then. But how do we get there?”

Obviously, my answer is mind games.

Here’s the plan.

Out of nowhere, we’re going to drop two stories on people that speak to two different motivators. One speaks to inspiration, our need to contribute to something bigger. This will capture a lot of people, hopefully the majority. The rest we’ll get by scaring the crap out of them with a second story.

I joke. But not really. It’s mind games all the way down.

So. Mission alignment. What do you do here, you?

Let’s do this exercise. I’ll go first.

How is me writing this post contributing to our company mission?


The agenda behind me bringing this topic up with you is to (not so) subtly manipulate you into reflecting on this question yourself. As I said: mind games.

Initially, you may resist, but ultimately you won’t be able to help but ask yourself: how is what I’m doing right now (or at least, after finishing reading this post) contributing to the company mission?

Maybe you’ll struggle to answer this question at the first attempt. Because, you know, you’re just reviewing a pull request. However, while you never thought of it this way, reviewing this pull request is a small part of delivering a particular feature. And that feature is something customers have been clamoring for us to implement for years. Because when they have that feature, they will finally be able to do something they couldn’t do before, at least more efficiently. It helps them be more successful.

Now this is a relatively short path with few hops. Maybe in your case you work on something where it’s far less obvious. But as you will discover, as you think through it, you can find a path.

“Oh, this is fun,” you’ll think. “I should do this more often.”

Then, next week during some planning session somebody says “we need to do X!” And you’ll think: “but how does X contribute to our company mission — let’s see if I can figure this one out.”

You’ll realize that actually, you can get there, but... there may be better paths we can take.

“Hey,” you’ll ask, “I’ve been thinking how X contributes to our mission, and I figured it’s probably because of A to B to C. Is that correct?”

“Well,” the task issuer may say, “almost, but in fact we were more thinking A and then directly to D.”

“Ah right, but have you also considered A straight to C?”

“Hah, no... That actually makes total sense. And that has a number of advantages. Let’s try that instead. Cool. Why were you even asking this?”

“Well, I read this post from Zef about putting a janitor on the moon or something.”

And? Did it work?

No? Ok, no worries, I’ll look forward to meet in person at the office at some point.

I’ll be waiting in the elevator.